Learning the New Economic Reality

The dean’s message on the website of Howard University’s School of Business imparts a clear message: “As we continue in our quest to maintain academic excellence, we must adjust to the changing economic environment. The recent downturn in the global economy continues to [have an] impact on opportunities for our students and many of our alumni,” Dr. Barron Harvey wrote, adding that the business school is taking “aggressive steps” to stay competitive, including increasing its focus on international programs and entrepreneurship.

Harvey’s candid assessment illustrates a proactive stance that many historically Black business schools have taken during this period of economic uncertainty.

Dr. Jessica Bailey, president of the HBCU Business Deans’ Roundtable, which includes 52 of the 104 historically Black business schools, thinks the institutions are “expanding their missions” to place more emphasis on globalization, entrepreneurship and, most importantly, ensuring that their graduates are versatile and multifaceted.

“Students must have the ability to adapt,” Bailey said in a Diverse interview. “Their degree has to give them a certain amount of flexibility so that if the job they’re in today were to vanish they would still have the skills to move into other occupations.”

As dean of Winston-Salem (N.C.) State University’s School of Business and Economics, Bailey said her institution was doing just that — “moving toward giving the students a broad enough background so that they have not just the skills for a particular career but the ability to take advantage of new opportunities that may arise.”

Those opportunities may be — and likely will be — outside their areas of concentration. “Let’s say, for example, a person takes a job in manufacturing. They may have to switch to retailing. They’ve got to be nimble, and their survival skills need to include a broad foundation in business.”

She also said logistics and supply-chain management were key subject areas —“how cheaply can you ship it from one part of the world to another?”

The need to be “nimble” was also stressed by Dr. Donald Andrews, dean of the Southern University College of Business in Baton Rouge, La. He said Southern was “always adjusting [its] curriculum as new things come about,” and globalization in particular has demanded major attention.

Andrews added that federal grants for international education had enabled students and faculty to train and study business practices abroad in locations ranging from Brazil to London to South Africa. Southern suffered a serious setback when the university declared financial exigency last fall.

The most evident fallout for the college of business, according to Andrews, had been the loss of some “star faculty members” because of the salary constraints imposed by the university. Nevertheless, he said, the corporate community had been steadfast in its support and enrollment had not significantly declined.

“We have continued to have a pretty good response from corporations,” Andrews said, adding that the major change in recruiting has been the higher standards imposed by prospective employers. “A few years ago, a 3.2 was good enough, now it’s a 3.5 or higher because fewer jobs are available.” Andrews also says that, in response to current demand from industry, Southern is planning an insurance institute and a concentration in supply-chain management.

“Corporations told us they were looking to hire students who understand logistics and the various technologies that are used in supply-chain management from a global perspective, so we responded to their needs,” Andrews said. He mentioned Johnson & Johnson, Walgreen’s, Texas Instruments and Exxon Mobil among those whose recruiters prompted the adjustments.

Dr. Shawnta Friday-Stroud, who in 2010 was appointed permanent dean of the Florida A&M University School of Business and Industry, says her school has had a similar experience based on feedback from recruiters. “We’re now seeking to have supply-chain management offered as a concentration. We have always had the courses; now we are formalizing them into a concentration.” The courses include supply-chain management, purchasing and negotiation.

Friday-Stroud said that decision resulted from FAMU students winning a competition in supply-chain management against students from schools that had majors or concentrations. “After our students won, more companies started recruiting here for supply-chain [management], so we decided we should also have the concentration,” she said.

Like the other deans, Friday-Stroud said overall recruiting had not declined significantly, but had changed in focus. FAMU’s business school is widely-known for its strong relationships with corporate entities despite its lack of accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. Howard, WSSU and Southern’s business schools are accredited by AACSB. FAMU’s business school is accredited by the Southeastern Association of Colleges and Schools.

“We’re fortunate because we have a diversified portfolio of corporate internships for our students. The only difference students have seen is that the types of firms that are offering those internships may have changed.” As examples, she said the auto industry is now increasing its recruiting, as are more government agencies.

Friday-Stroud also said the recession has prompted more students to earn advanced degrees to pursue careers in academia or to gain an edge in the corporate job market. FAMU’s School of Business and Industry is promoting its emphasis on globalization with its Global Leadership Conference, held April 18-20. Friday-Stroud also points to alumni who are working on the global front, including Javonté Anyabwelé, recently appointed Bausch + Lomb’s director of productivity for the Asia-Pacific Region, and recognized in the February issue of Black Enterprise.

Despite his reality-check message on the business school’s website, Howard’s Barron Harvey told Diverse that the school is successfully making the necessary adjustments, and he asserted the same themes as his counterparts — adaptability, flexibility and global perspective.

“We’re trying to educate our students to be more resourceful in terms of jobs and career aspirations,” Harvey said. “For years a lot of students were kind of spoiled because all the major companies came here, and they got job offers way before graduation, or two or three months after. Now we’re asking students to be more resourceful, to be more flexible.” He said that means considering smaller firms, the public sector and the not-for-profit sector. It also means thinking globally.

“It’s a global marketplace now, and we are making sure our students understand that it is not enough to develop skills to compete domestically; they must be able to compete internationally,” Harvey said. “This is the new economic reality.” To that end, Howard’s business school also is offering courses in China, Brazil, India and Ghana, among others.

Harvey contends that Howard also has led the way in supply-chain management. “In 2002, we started it as an MBA program, and now it’s our number two concentration. We started the undergraduate program about three years ago.”

As the pressure to compete in an increasingly tough job market intensifies, the deans say their students simply have to be more broadly prepared than ever before. Students are being encouraged to bolster their resumes with internships, international study, and participation in contests such as the Opportunity Funding Corporation’s Venture Challenge competition, the Institute for Supply Management’s student case competition, and the Ford HBCU business plan competition.

Andrews said it’s a matter of keeping pace, for both the business schools and their students.

” The world is becoming much more complex … the pace of change has accelerated to the point that, if you’re sitting around waiting to catch up, you never will,” he says.